You don’t have to suffer

A few years ago, during a research seminar at Leeds Conservatoire, I was speaking to students about their issues with writer’s block (or, I suppose, composer’s block). It made me realise that writer’s block is an almost universal experience, impacting most artists at some point in their creative lives. However, I also came to understand just how unprepared people were in attempting to overcome this affliction. Many students accepted it as an unavoidable consequence of their creative practice.

I wrote a public blog post called Writer’s Block (From the Perspective of a Composer) and published it at the Open College of the Arts.

You can read it here if you like!

It does not provide any concrete answers; that would be impossible, as everybody’s experience with writer’s block is different. However, a central theme of the blog post is that everything is OK! It is OK to write slowly, OK to write quickly. It is OK if you write a bad piece of music; the world won’t end if you do!

I still stand by what I wrote then, in 2022, and this update serves as a sequel of sorts.

 

Rocket Science

I am currently reading Free Play: Improvisation in Art and Life by Stephen Nachmanovitch; a wonderful book where the philosophies of spontaneous creativity are applied to both music and everyday life.

In the book, Nachmanovitch recounts a folk tale about a Japanese flautist learning a newly invented Chinese flute. I won’t paraphrase the entire plot (partially because I encourage you to read the book!) but I will highlight the following passage, from the middle of story:

“Finally the frustration became too much for him. One night he packed his bag and slinked out. He continued to live in the capital city for some time longer, until his money ran dry. He began drinking. Finally, impoverished, he drifted back to his own part of the country. Ashamed to show his face to his former colleagues…”

The end of the tale is more positive and reflects upon the value of not just technically mastering an instrument, but also surrendering oneself to the other, less tangible, aspects of musicality (and of life) that can make a performance captivating. However, the fact the protagonist had to endure pain and suffering before becoming a great flautist is a trope I find problematic.

I spoke to a friend who has recently experimented with using Ableton Live software. He was very dismissive of his skills and of the complexity of the programme itself. “It’s not exactly rocket science”, he said. I found this attitude equally problematic.

I want to dispel the myth that something is only worth doing if it is difficult, and that suffering adds weight and meaning to one’s creative endeavours. This attitude is not limited to those in the creative industries. People on Reddit discuss the merits of the ‘grindset mentality’. Celebrities boast on Instagram about their daily schedule; waking up at 4 in the morning so they can exercise, read an entire book, meditate, and exercise again before most of us have even gotten out of bed!

But, what if Ableton Live is hard? What if my friend is extremely talented, and has dismissed that talent because they wrongly assumed that suffering/difficulty is the only path to success? What if they are an Ableton Live genius in the making?

And this is definitely not an attack on my friend. Firstly, as demonstrated in the Nachmanovitch book, suffering is baked into our collective understanding of genius. (It is entirely possible the protagonist could have found the path to mastery by going on a walk in the countryside, having a nice cup of tea, and spending time reflecting on his practice.)

Secondly, I have been equally guilty of assuming difficulty has inherent worth; equating suffering with meaning. Growing up, I used to find improvising easy. Therefore, I assumed everybody found it easy, and consequently decided it wasn’t a worthwhile pursuit. What a shame!

 

The Path of Least Resistance

In early 2023, I came to the realisation that I didn’t have to suffer. I decided to focus on improvisation as a core component of my professional practice. I am writing this post on a train to Glasgow, where I will be performing my 40-minute piece Local Mosaics and Graffiti for improviser(s) and fixed electronics, and I can’t wait! I am composing the best music I have ever written, and doing so more quickly and effortlessly than at any other point in my career.

I work very hard, of course, but I am never suffering needlessly. And, if I find something easy, I am no longer suspicious of it. I have internalised the fact that great music need not be the result of great difficulty.

And, to anybody reading this, I would encourage you to do the same (whether you are a musician or not). If you find something easy, do not be dismissive of this. Maybe you find it easy to use Microsoft Excel, or play the violin, or speak in public, or bake a cake, not because it is easy, but because you have a natural affinity for it.

There is something to be said for taking the path of least resistance.

Below you can listen to Symphony of Guffaws. It is one of the first pieces I made after deciding life didn’t have to be so difficult!

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